Big Charter School Push Coming to Baton Rouge

Apr 26, 2012

Chris Meyer is the head of New Schools for Baton Rouge, which will be facilitating the development of charter schools. (WRKF/Amy Jeffries)

The Recovery School District is announcing plans for an "Achievement Zone" in north Baton Rouge where the schools have been failing for decades.

As part of that effort, New Schools for Baton Rouge will be facilitating the development of charter schools.

Before moving upriver to launch the new non-profit, Chris Meyer worked for the RSD in New Orleans, identifying which schools to turn over to charter operators there.

As he told WRKF's Amy Jeffries, Meyer is out to prove that you don't need a hurricane to make radical changes to the way schools work.

JEFFRIES: You're now looking at, in New Orleans, a student body of which more than 80 percent are in charter schools. But the Recovery School District is still a D district.

MEYER: Yeah. So a couple things, first, it's the mission of the RSD to take the lowest performing schools in the state.

On the other side of it, if you look at the actual growth being made, before the hurricane, you had more than 75 percent of the kids in New Orleans not at proficient level -- more than 75 percent. Today that number's less than half.

So the district's obviously moving fast, but I think we would only say, as being part of that movement, we've only gotten to about mediocre at this point, and the next jump is to get to good, and then to great, and that's going to take, again, tremendous effort and continual push kind of in this vein.

When you look at New Orleans as an entire system, the students there, their average performance is higher than all the kids in Baton Rouge. But I think you're going to see a wave of improvement here that's just as fast or faster than New Orleans, and there's no reason we can't create the best schools in the state in that zone just north of the capitol.

JEFFRIES: Baton Rouge has just seven charter schools out of its 83 schools. How many schools are you hoping to transform into charter schools and over roughly what period of time?

MEYER: Our intention is to try to launch 20 schools over the next five years.

JEFFRIES: Does opening 20 charter schools means closing 20 existing schools?

MEYER: In some cases it may look like outright closing a school and sending kids or giving kids the opportunity to attend higher-performing schools.

In some cases it might mean that, we have, you know, at the end of one school year, we release the control from one of the school systems and say next year this operator is now in charge, and if you were an adult working in that building you have the opportunity to reapply for your job, but somebody else is now governing it.

Or we do a partnership where we grow a school in a school.

So there's many different ways to do it, but I think the key is focusing on the urgency to get this change to as many kids as fast as we can.

JEFFRIES: Have you talked with the leadership of the East Baton Rouge School District about these big plans?

MEYER: We have, yeah. I think the approach there is talk about, what if we created this zone of schools -- and I've been talking about this north Baton Rouge area -- and what if we said, why can we not, together as adults, try to create an area where we say, you know what, we're not going to dictate to the leaders in this area what the inputs should be, we're instead going to say we're going to set high expectations and we're going to empower the educators in those schools to get the job done.

JEFFRIES: And you can't do that within traditional public schools, because the structures that exist right now are in the way.

MEYER: I think you can, but you have to be willing to take down those structures. And sometimes that's so complicated, that an easier thing is to try to do it independently.

I mean, the traditional system here can authorize charter schools. It can decide that it wanted to start empowering its leaders and principals, so there's no reason that it can't say tomorrow that, our new theory of action is, we're going to give every principal in East Baton Rouge Parish the right to hire whomever they want -- they're in charge -- but we're also going to set for every principal in East Baton Rouge Parish a performance target at the end of the year, or at the end of two years, and if they hit it, they keep their job and maybe even they get a bonus, if they don't, they're gone.

But today, if you're a principal in East Baton Rouge Parish, unless you're really creative and sort of ask for forgiveness after the fact, you don't have any say over who's coming into your building, and you don't have any say sometimes over where you're positioning your teachers.

JEFFRIES: Right now those decisions in East Baton Rouge are being made by--

MEYER: --the central office.

What I'm saying is, a school system can devolve power to its leaders, to its entrepreneurs in its schools, but that takes a lot of work, and there's a lot of resistance there to do it, and I'm not sure that, you know, the political will is always there.

And so, that's why I think the theory, or the action we see in New Orleans about building "systems of schools" not at a "school system", that's one of the reasons I think -- and probably the predominant reason why -- it's been so effective.

JEFFRIES: Well, Chris Meyer, you will be leading the charge here as head of New Schools for Baton Rouge. So glad you could join us to introduce us to coming developments.

MEYER: Thank you. Lots of work to do.